Nicolas Cage and a team of elite martial artists fighting an alien who arrives every six years via a comet using only martial arts? Sounds far too good to be true, but thanks to director Dimitri Logothetis ( Kickboxer Vengeance) that movie exists and it’s one of the most fun films of the year. We chatted with the director about his vision for Jiu Jitsu, its stellar roster of martial arts stars, and how Nic Cage became such an integral part of the wild sci-fi action flick.
After the success of his Kickboxer reinvention, Logothetis was considering what to do next when a friend suggested he try out “sci-fi martial arts.” The recommendation stuck. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, that’s kind of cool,'” he shared. “Because you know martial arts films often really have a very similar plot. It’s about the bully that everybody has always had to deal with. Somebody kicking sand in your face or the boss who’s kicking them around.”
In that formula Logothetis saw the potential to do something different, something crazy, and something that would become Jiu Jitsu. “It’s the kind of enemy who can’t ever be killed and then he has to go up against these exceptional martial artists that have been specifically trained to fight him to the death,” he explained. “Then I wanted to build some folklore around that. So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if there were these hieroglyphics on a temple somewhere in Myanmar, and every six years when a comet passes through our solar system this portal opens and out comes this alien that’s supposed to fight these jiu-jitsu masters.'”
Logothetis was right… it is cool!
Jiu Jitsu embraces Hollywood’s superhero trend but fills it with the kind of action stars (and action) the MCU can only dream of. Real martial artists make up the real team, including Tony Jaa, JuJu Chan, Marrese Crump, Alain Moussi, and Frank Grillo. It’s very much the reason the film packs such a punch—pun completely intended. And it’s why you can’t look away from the action. “You need a core of authentic martial artists,” Logothetis said. “You watch and think, ‘Oh my god, these people are actually doing all this stuff and performing all this themselves. They are real life superheroes! Maybe I could do that if I worked with the right teacher and put in the time.'”
Logothetis continued. “That’s really at the core of martial arts films, because otherwise something that I get lost in is that even though you have wonderful actors in the science fiction films that we love and adore, you know they’re actors and not stunt people. You know that they’re not pulling off the stuff that you’re seeing. But with me, I hold the camera, I pull it back, and I let you watch these artists do some pretty amazing things with live action.”
Jiu Jitsu has another strength: just how unencumbered it is by the rules of “real life” or “real fighting.” The film’s outrageous sci-fi setup gave the director freedom to go for it. “I didn’t want to be stuck in kung fu. I didn’t want to be stuck in Muay Thai. The team that I put together are all authentic martial artists, including Nic Cage, who’s a wonderful actor and embraces genre and really sells the story. You have to have that in martial arts. You see the expertise and the athleticism. And here that isn’t barred by any specific martial art.”
Putting together such an impressive team of famed martial artists alongside one of the industry’s most beloved eccentrics was a feat. Logothetis’ love of classic team movies shaped his vision. “It’s always challenging to convince people to step into a new Expendables. A modern day Dirty Dozen… I grew up on those team-oriented stories. That’s my favorite genre. Like Akira Kurosawa’s impeccable film, The Seven Samurai. Each of those people had their own personality, they brought their own thing. But at the core, everybody had loyalty, authenticity, friendship, and a code. The fact that you were willing to lay your life down to defend your brothers and sisters. And I think that’s a wonderful value that comes with martial arts.”
The biggest draw for viewers who might not always check out the latest martial arts movies is Nic Cage who plays the movie’s wise and slightly unstable elder. “I was blessed to get Nic,” Logothetis told us. “He really takes chances but he’s a consummate artist. When he came on board he totally embraced this character and really came up with some wonderful qualities that added to the world. Without that you couldn’t sell that story. He’s the storyteller, the one who makes you buy in. He’s our Obi-Wan Kenobi.”
Jiu Jitsu feels like the beginning of a new martial arts franchise. And Logothetis confirmed that he is working on a sequel. “Believe me, I’ve got some really cool stuff,” he laughed. “I want to assemble an even bigger team. I’d like to bring in Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White, Donnie Yen, and we have to bring back Tony [Jaa]!”
Jiu Jitsu hits select theaters, digital, and on demand November 20th.
Featured Image: The Avenue